Humans have a knack for resilience and survival. As we endure yet another terrifying season of storms, wildfires, and overall damaging effects from climate change, we look to the past to guide us. Below are some great reads of true stories about natural disasters and survival, from famines and fires to hurricanes and tsunamis, along with some books about a more sterile side to catastrophe: the logistics behind financial compensation in the wake of a disaster, and how to harness the past to create a better future.
While famine can be triggered by nature, it more often arises out of mishandled politics and poor ideology. In Three Famines, Thomas Keneally digs into this idea, noting that, historically, widespread hunger is the outcome of government neglect, racism, and administrative incompetence. The book's narrative focuses on three major famines in human history: the potato famine in Ireland, the Bengal famine in 1943, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and '80s.
Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the December 2004 tsunami off the coast of Sri Lanka. In her searing memoir, Wave, she writes about the terror of the storm and the long, painful journey she endured afterward. She writes with brutal honesty about the terrible reality she had to face in the wake of the storm, and then, slowly, feeling warm and sentimental feelings about the memories of her lost loved ones again.
by R.A. Scotti
In Sudden Sea, R.A. Scotti delves into the massive destruction left in the wake of the Hurricane of 1939—the worst, most financially destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, wreaking havoc across seven states in New England. Its damages dwarfed those of the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the Mississippi floods of 1927. The book draws on newspapers, eyewitnesses, and archival footage to retell the story of the Great Hurricane.
Four days after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico in 2017, chef José Andrés arrived to feed people one hot meal at a time. The storm destroyed the island's economy and most people had no clean water, food, power, gas, or way to communicate with anyone outside the island. Andrés and his team came together to feed hundreds of thousands of people in the wake of the hurricane. Now, he tells that story in We Fed an Island—alongside stories of community kitchens, local activism, and hope.
Iris Morales (Editor)
When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico in September 2017, it brought on the most devastating destruction the island had seen in nearly a century. In this anthology edited by Iris Morales, 22 activists, community organizers, and artists share their experiences of the storm and its aftermath. Voices from Puerto Rico, in both English and Spanish, displays all the widespread poverty, lack of infrastructure, and austerity of U.S. colonialism through poems, essays, and first-person accounts.
In the aftermath of every disaster—natural and human-made—is compensation for the lives lost, bodies maimed, livelihoods wrecked, economies upended, and ecosystems devastated. From Agent Orange to 9/11, from the Virginia Tech massacre to the 2008 financial crisis, an objective third party had to figure out the allocation of funds. Who Gets What is Kenneth R. Feinberg's tome about compensation for disasters, covering the deep thought that goes into the decision and why monetary compensation is even necessary.
In scary times, building resilience is urgent and necessary. The ability to bounce back from any crisis—a virus, a storm, a civil disturbance—is crucial for our interconnected world. Judith Rodin's The Resilience Dividend is a compilation of stories of people, organizations, businesses, communities, and cities have developed resilience in the face of catastrophe. One is the story Medellin, Colombia: Once the drug and murder capital of South America, it now hosts international conferences and destination vacations. Using historical examples, Rodin shows how we can grow strong in times of calm in order to more easily recover from catastrophe in the future.
In February 2009, Australia was on fire. The brushfires were so huge, burning 1,100,000 acres of land in Victoria, that the day was named Black Saturday. Karen Kissane’s Worst of Days is a narrative account of the people who were there for one of the brushfires, the Kilmore blaze. It’s the story of what humans—heroes and monsters, survivors and lost souls—do at the worst of times, from the man who braved the flames to help a friend to the man who refused to cover the face of a dead man.
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Ashley Holstrom is a book person, designing them and writing about them for Book Riot. She lives near Chicago with her cat named after Hemingway and her bookshelves organized by color.